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NASA Helicopter Poised for First-Ever Flight on Mars

April 11 is the big day for the agency's Ingenuity helicopter, which will execute the first-ever powered, controlled flight on another planet.

(CN) — NASA is in the final stages of preparing its “Wright brothers moment” on Mars this weekend, where it’s Ingenuity helicopter will attempt humanity’s first-ever powered flight on an alien world, scientists with the U.S. space agency said Friday.

If things go as planned, the rotorcraft is expected to take off from Mars’ Jezero Crater on Sunday just before 8 p.m. Pacific. An autonomous, self-piloting navigation system will activate, hovering the craft about 10 feet above the surface of the desert world for at least 30 seconds.

Thomas Zurbuchen, science administrator at NASA, said in a virtual preflight briefing Friday a successful flight demonstration will stretch the arc of human innovation from the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight to the Sunday launch.

“While Ingenuity carries no science instruments, the little helicopter is already making its presence felt across the world, as future leaders follow its progress toward an unprecedented first flight,” Zurbuchen said in a statement. “We do tech demos like this to push the envelope of our experience and provide something on which the next missions and the next generation can build. Just as Ingenuity was inspired by the Wright brothers, future explorers will take off using both the data and inspiration from this mission.”

The four-pound drone helicopter arrived on the red planet by hitching a ride on NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 after a nearly 300-million-mile journey from Earth.

Perseverance then carried the rotorcraft to a nearby "airfield" on the desert world where it will attempt humanity’s first-ever powered, controlled flight on another planet.

MiMi Aung, Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in the briefing the flight test is complicated by Mars’ thin atmosphere, wind gusts and challenges with charging the craft’s solar-powered devices.

The red planet’s gravity is approximately one-third that of Earth’s and its atmosphere is 1% as dense as what humans experience on our planet’s surface. Unprotected electrical components on the rotorcraft can also freeze on the coldest Martian nights, where temperatures can dip to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Aung said in the briefing NASA has been testing Ingenuity’s rotor speed, motor functions and energy levels to ensure it’s fully prepared for flight.

“The vehicle is set,” Aung said. “We’ve been talking to it daily since it was dropped to the surface.”

This graphic shows the general activities the team behind NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter hopes to accomplish on a given test flight on the red planet. The helicopter will have 31 Earth days (30 sols, or Martian days) for its test flight program. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Sunday’s mission will offer NASA crucial insight for future flight attempts on alien worlds, regardless of whether Ingenuity is fully or partially successful, relays zero data or is a total failure, Aung said. 

A carbon-fiber debris shield protecting the helicopter was recently detached, exposing the craft’s folded, stowed-away position on Perseverance’s underbelly before being dropped at the launch site. The rover is acting as a communication base for Sunday’s flight, relaying signals from NASA to the rotorcraft.

Ingenuity has a limited window to attempt its flight.

After detaching fully from Perseverance and getting into position on the airfield, Ingenuity has just 31 Earth days to test sensors, charge its batteries and conduct the flight test, according to NASA engineers.

Once final system diagnostics are checked Sunday, it should take about 12 seconds for Ingenuity’s rotors to go from 0 to 2,537 rotations per minute and about six seconds after takeoff to reach the maximum height for the test flight, JPL’s Håvard Grip said in a statement. 

“When we hit 10 feet, Ingenuity will go into a hover that should last — if all goes well — for about 30 seconds,” Grip said.

To both honor the Wright brothers’ contribution to aviation and mark Ingenuity’s leap into planetary exploration, the rotorcraft carries a postage stamp-sized fabric from the Wright brothers’ first successful aircraft, the Flyer.

The Apollo 11 mission also carried a piece of the fabric along with a splinter of wood from the Flyer to the moon and back in 1969.

The rotorcraft is tasked with scouting small sections of Mars’ rocky terrain once the rotorcraft successfully orients itself in the planet’s thin atmosphere.

NASA has scheduled a Monday briefing to update the public on the outcome of Ingenuity’s test flight. 

Perseverance — the six-wheeled, SUV-sized rover — is tasked with using its high-tech robotic arm and drill to collect soil and rock samples from what scientists believe was once a flourishing river delta and lake. 

NASA scientists have said the 28-mile-wide crater once hosted a Lake Tahoe-sized body of water that may have left behind clues of single-celled organisms and microbial life that could’ve populated the planet. 

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